Personal Sacrifice as Self-Preservation
Over the many articles I’ve written in recent months, I’ve always known that there is one topic about which I wanted to write, but I lacked a sense of having a clear message. And while I am still not sure if it is ripe enough to share, I feel that I have the beginning of a thread to pull me toward some measure of coherence.
Recently, someone recommended that I read Bill Browder’s book “Red Notice,” which tells his story, starting with when he was the largest Western investor in Russia. Though I was unfamiliar with the author, and not particularly interested in the subject matter, I found that I couldn’t put the book down. It is a page-turner, an example of personal perseverance and an inspiring lesson on how to navigate the international arena. It provides a rare opportunity to get eyes and ears inside of Russia, to learn about the forces at play there and to ascertain how the largest country in the world stumbles to adapt to a 20th century economy.
Mr. Browder, whose grandfather, Earl Browder, was the leader of the Communist Party USA and a twice-failed presidential candidate, spent most of his career managing money through the intricacies of the Russian financial systems. What stood out for me, however, was how, when he was challenged and bullied by Russia’s unforgiving, corrupt structure, he stepped out of the shadow of the Square Mile, fought, and changed the Russian justice system.
Many of us have some memory of standing up for a cause, and our culture is full of spectacles that glorify acts of bravery and courage. For me, it all comes down to personal examples of commitment and determination that I learned from my father, Fillip. He was incarcerated when we lived in Romania — his only crime was being a Jew and requesting a visa to leave for Israel. My brother was just a baby, I was sick, and our mom was dying, so you could argue that it was not the time for standing on principles and taking heroic stances. But without his resolve, we’d still be there, no doubt subject to the same injustice and persecution.
We absorb our own personal examples and family stories, which help us find our own resolve when the time comes, with our mother’s milk. That’s how we hear our personal calling. There are greater examples of such heroic stands in our tradition as well as in recent history, from the much revered Janusz Korczak, Natan Sharansky, and Yosef Mendelevich, to commonplace acts by ordinary social workers and public defenders in everyday life around us.
But we need not look for remote examples when our heritage puts the prime role model right in front of us. This is especially true at this time of the year, when we read the Torah portions about Moses and his stand in front of Pharaoh, demanding to let his people — our people — go. The very act of standing for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan plays a central role in our heritage. As result, we can follow the origins of the struggle for social justice over millennia to its Jewish roots, from Christianity (rooted in Judaism) to socialism and revolutionary movements, to the many struggles for civil rights, where Jewish voices have always played a central role.
Yet when I look at society at large, and our own community, in particular, I find that the impetus for personal involvement with greater causes than our own is challenged and limited. Certainly, we lobby our political system for good causes, we travel to Israel, and we give to charity, but when was the last time that any of us put our career on the line, let alone sacrificed our safety, for a cause?
I always thought that by having served in the Israeli army for as long as I did, and having devoted myself to raising a family, I’ve done my share, and there is nothing wrong with this thinking. But the problem is that if each one of us focuses only on our own personal circle, who would care for the greater society within which we raise our children? We need not look far, but just open the newspaper or watch the news report on TV to realize how divided our country had become.
The challenge with charitable thinking and doing for others is in trying to imagine it as being for our own sake. Our Torah specifically outlines the giving of tzedakah as one of the three principles around which our own redemption is based, but we cannot avoid the feeling that the needy are not us, but the Other. It is important to see the eventual beneficiary of our own charity is ultimately our very selves.
I am reminded of the poem by the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
We need to realize that giving charity or standing up against injustice is not only an altruism for the needy, but that in our willingness for sacrifice we are caring for our very own. In our involvement, we help to create the society in which we raise our family; void of solid values, our future will diminish and our offspring will wither and fail to thrive. But more importantly, we can learn from others’ examples that when we focus on helping the needy, we actually help ourselves.
Jewish principles are based on charity, not only to help the needy, but also precisely because when we devote ourselves to giving and helping, we build a stronger self and a committed family unit, and we help sustain a healthy society. But it is hard to recall those principles when we sense danger to ourselves or perceive that others have stopped playing by the Golden Rule.
It is precisely for these times that we need to home in on the characters of our own heroes in our families, our culture, and our heritage, and let their memory guide our path ahead. As our greatest champion in leadership, Moses exemplifies all the qualities we need to emulate. Since he was shy and not eloquent, he had to overcome his handicaps. Though he was afraid for his own safety, he shed his fear and arose to lead. And being afraid of failure, he broke out of his limitations and paved our way to freedom and redemption.
We are each our own Moses, in our family, within our community, and in society at large. The battlefield in which we must sharpen our ancestral commitment for justice and betterment is in letting go of our sense of Us and Them. We must free ourselves from the fears that chain us to complacency and petty arguments. It is time — it’s always time — for leadership. Each of us is our own prime example.
Recent champions in our everyday life are those who came out to help defend women and other defenseless people who were victimized for far too many years. A hero in today’s times is someone who takes a stand and follows it with action.
I just met with Rabbi Saul Berman for a discussion in which he recounted the way the Torah teaches us to be the best we can. In biblical times, when agriculture was people’s primary mainstay, every part of it, from plowing to planting and dividing the crops, had followed rules that helped to sustain communities. The problem with today’s business world is that it is concerned only with profits and doesn’t feel obligated to its environment. The question begs to be asked: Is capitalism, as a whole, capable of re-engineering its future in a way consistent with a sustainable world? Laurence Fink, the chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the largest fund in the world, thinks it is. He spoke recently about his decision to invest only in companies committed to society’s well-being and sustainability, starting a new era of sustainable capitalism.
We each can start by using our political connections and charitable giving to help others outside of our own circles. We should create a chapter of professional assistance for the needy in the greater communities in which we dwell — in helping them, we help build a safer, more just environment for ourselves. We have physicians, attorneys, accountants, dentists, architects, and therapists who can volunteer a fraction of their time to help a person or family in need who has no access to such help. They can be screened by their pastors and referred to us when credible. It is a small act toward a stronger community.
We must remember that when we help others, we model our allegiance to our society and our loyalty to this great country. An example of this was my father, who helped build a school for orphans of the war. He was jailed in the early 1950s for being Jewish, but the residents of the town where he’d been incarcerated under fabricated charges demonstrated for his release.
On a separate note, I don’t know much about Bill Browder, beyond what I read. I learned how his daring involvement helped millions of Russians in pursuit of their rights against a corrupt regime. Also I learned that an alliance with a dictator, even when it seems to serve your goal, can turn deadly when the tyrant decides that his interests have changed. Browder went from serving Putin’s interests to being Putin’s enemy number one.
Leaders come and go, but we need to stand clear and align ourselves with the greater justice for all people.